The man who had to teach himself to lie
Is honesty overrated? In a new magazine article, a writer tells of growing up in a family where nobody told a lie – and the difficulties it caused him in dealing with the rest of the world.
The waiting room was full of children waiting for vaccinations. All of them wanted to know the same thing: “Will it hurt?” Most parents replied: “No, it won’t.” But one family was different. When Michael Leviton put the question to his mother, she said: “Yes, it will” – though she added that it would only hurt a little, and for a short while.
Michael was delighted. He felt lucky to have parents he could trust rather than ones that lied to him. But when he grew older, he found that there were disadvantages in being honest the whole time. Finally, at 29, he decided that he had better desist.
Michael’s parents never actually told him he must always tell the truth, but they made it clear in everything they did. His father made a game of trying to predict when someone was about to tell a lie – and he was always right.
When Michael asked him the secret, he replied: “They’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.”
At school, Michael took pride in his honesty. He never pretended to find something interesting if he was bored by it, or to remember someone’s name if he had forgotten it. He talked openly about feelings other people would be ashamed of and challenged anyone who bragged about things they had not actually done.
What baffled him and his parents was that no one else behaved like them. “For us,” he wrote in The Atlantic yesterday, “it seemed as if people didn’t want to really know one another”.
As a teenager, he tried to persuade others to change their ways. “I insisted that if we could all read one another’s minds and see the truth of others’ pain, we’d relate, and all love one another. I couldn’t understand why others valued what they called ‘privacy’.”
But in his twenties, he encountered serious problems. He failed job interviews because he was so open about his shortcomings, and struggled to find a girlfriend who did not mind about him being honest about hers.
Finally, he fell in love with someone who was happy to approach life in the same way. “We talked constantly, sharing our most bizarre feelings, observations, and opinions; telling stories from our pasts; feeling known and understood.”
The problem was that this made the relationship exhaustingly intense. When it came to a heart-breaking end, Michael decided he must learn to be less honest.
Though it proved a struggle, Michael found his life improved: “I couldn’t ignore how much smoother every interaction went, how much happier everyone else seemed… I got piano-playing gigs by refraining from mentioning that I wasn’t a very good piano player.”
He came to see honesty as a form of intimacy. “My indiscriminate, automatic honesty had meant that I’d tell a personal story the same way to a stranger as I would to my closest friend… Anyone who loved me wanted to see a side that I didn’t show others, but I hadn’t saved one for them.”
And in the same way, he realised, “If I wanted people to be honest with me, I had to earn it.”
Is honesty overrated?
Truth or dare
Some say, yes: in order to get on with other people, we have to tell small untruths to spare their feelings. Honesty is a virtue, but kindness is a more important one. Nobody wants to be told that their new shoes look ridiculous, or that you will not come to their party because you think it will be boring. Equally, a stranger who asks: “How are you?” does not want a run-down of all your problems.
Others argue that a society is built on trust, and cannot survive if people make a habit of dishonesty. Many of the world’s greatest political problems stem from the fact that voters do not believe what their leaders tell them. The current crisis in the US is a direct result of Donald Trump lying about the election result, and conspiracy theorists spreading false rumours on social media.
- If you discovered that a member of a friend’s family was seriously ill, but your friend did not know, would you tell him or her?
- Under British law, someone who lies in court can be sent to prison for seven years. Is that a reasonable sentence?
- Write a diary entry describing what you did yesterday. Then write another version of it falsifying every detail.
- One of the cleverest poems about lying is Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tale, Matilda. Write a poem in the same style about someone who behaves badly.
Some People Say...
“Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955), German physicist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that no politician in modern times has been as brazenly dishonest as Donald Trump. CNN’s Daniel Dale, whose job was to check the truth of everything Trump said, argues that his claim to have Covid-19 under control was his most dangerous lie. His first as president was to claim that there was no rain at his inauguration, when in fact it poured. His most alarming lie was that Alabama was about to be hit by a hurricane when weather forecasters were certain it would not be.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around why some people are more honest than others. One study found that people with autism were 50% less likely to tell a lie than others, and some experts believe that the figure is higher still. Another study found that pathological liars tell on average seven times as many lies as normal people, and tend to persist with that behaviour for at least five years.
- Stop. It comes from a Latin verb meaning to stop standing.
- Boasted. Someone who boasts a lot is known as a braggart.
- Mystified. It derives from an old French word meaning to deceive or make fun of.
- A fault or failure to meet a certain standard, typically in a person's character.
- Weird. It comes from the Italian word “bizzarro”, meaning angry.
- Holding back from.
- Without making a choice. A discriminating person is someone who chooses things very carefully, but “discrimination” is often used to mean treating people unfairly.
- The Atlantic
- An American magazine founded in 1857. Its early contributors included some of the country’s most famous writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.